Famed Activist Wilma Subra Helps Citizens Document Pollution

  • Wilma Subra explains to Dickinson College students how she educates and empowers local communities with her technical support. Photo: Dickinson College

November 8, 2013

Wilma Subra knows well the story of Norco, Louisiana, a community razed after the Shell company's plant polluted the neighborhood (documented in The Allegheny Front's Coming Chemical Boom coverage). 

Subra's received the MacArthur Fellowship "Genius" Award for helping ordinary citizens understand, cope with and combat environmental problems in their communities. She’s a chemist who’s permanently on call to people who worry about living near factories, storm-polluted lands or, lately, fracking sites.  She chaired the Environmental Protection Agency’s study on hydraulic fracturing and the Clean Water and Drinking Water Act, and she’s been on several other EPA committees.  The following is a transcript of her recent interview with The Allegheny Front. 

Let’s go into a bit of detail about the bucket brigades which were used at norco to collect air quality samples at Norco. People were using a five-gallon bucket and it’s a low-cost way for community activists to monitor air quality.  But the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't treat such data as definitive because the bucket takes in air over three minutes. that’s instead of the 8- or 24-hour period over which the government samples. Could you talk about the governmental skepticism about simple tools like this?

Working with the community in Norco, particularly, there were frequently accidental releases and upsets, so I had the community start filling out what I called odor and symptom logs. When they smelled something and it caused a health impact, they would write it down. And I would go and correlate it with the data that Shell was actually submitting to the regulatory agency in response to upsets and accidents that they were having. And then once a month I would go and sit down with the community and we would go over what they recorded in odor and symptom logs and I’d say 'And this is what Shell says they released. These are the chemicals, this is how much, and these are the health impacts.' So suddenly the community started having the ability to correlate what their health symptoms correlated to the chemicals that they were smelling.

So then as a result we took samples of both using the buckets but also using the canisters and we were able to correlate that Shell was saying they were releasing A, B, and C, and we were taking samples in the community demonstrating that chemcials A, B, and C crossed the fenceline, came into the community. And then, continuing to work with Shell before we were able to get the relocation, Shell actually put up monitoring stations throughout the community and we worked with them on the locations where they were putting them. And as a result of that monitoring, Shell was demonstrating that the chemicals were moving off their industrial facilities into the community. So it was working together, coming up with this same type of data over and over again that demonstrated the need for Shell to get this commuity relocated.

But our reporter (Reid Frazier) said Norco was razed without Shell ever admitting there were health problems. 

That was the term of the relocation. That they were not gonna admit that they were causing health impacts, but were willing to provide them with adequate resources to relocate. And that was the best condition we could negotiate.

One thing that’s been recommended in our area since the fracking boom has taken place is for residents who use well water to be proactive and get tests done of their well water so that they can determine a baseline sample of the contents of their water so that if there are problems down the line, they can have some documentation. As the next phase, the ethane cracker, the chemical industry, is there something you’d suggest the residents here do?

Yes. Before a new industrial development comes into an area, there's a need for that water sampling, both surface water and groundwater as a background. There’s also a need for air sampling to establish a background. Because in a lot of cases where we’ve had water contamination, we didn’t have background data to base the accumulation of toxins in the groundwater. And then also to establish a health survey or an odor and symptom track, so we know what was there before it started and then as it’s implemented as it goes online, and then as it continues production, we can continue those data collection points--demonstrate how things have changed from before to after.

I read something someone said about you--Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association. He said, "She worries people on my side of the fence because she's very well-respected, and therefore she's effective...We don't always see eye to eye. However, I hold her in very high regard." That’s some statement. What do you make of that?

Well at least we can sit down at the table and talk about the situation. And I can bring the message from the communities to the table to help the industry and regulatory agencies to understand what is really going on out in these communities and the really severe impact that a lot of these industrial facilities and industrial processes are having on the health and quality of life in the communities that are living in the immediate area.

Not everyone has that level of respect.  You were actually shot at within gunfire while working at your desk at one point.  You believe that was an effort to scare you away from your investigations.  Could you talk about that incident?

Sure, I was working on preparing a presentation for the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Justice Conference. And I was working on quite a few facilities and situations, particularly related to natural gas storage and salt domes, as well as responses to Hurricane Katrina. And someone drove by a number of times, and the final time they drove by the passenger shot at my office, and I was sitting right in front of the window working on my computer at the time.

What did you do? 

My husband happened to be out in the yard at our home next door, and he called the Sheriff’s office and they stopped the car a little ways down the road. The passenger was gone, the gun was gone, and the driver said he didn’t know anything about it. So I brought in a consultant that said move everything to the back of the building so you’re not so visible and install bullet proof glass. But it was just a mechanism of harassing and if you start backing away and don’t work with the communities on these critical issues then they’ve won, so I continue to work with the communities.

I believe you're 69 years old. Is that correct? 


I read that you said there's too much to do to go on vacation. But I wonder if there are any milestones that might lead you to rest a little bit. 

If the industrial facilities operated appropriately and didn’t have any impact on the communities, then I would not constantly be receiving calls from communities that are being impacted to help them understand what is going on.